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Parent Perceptions of Children's Weight Found to Be Increasingly Inaccurate

Parents' perceptions of their children's weight became increasingly inaccurate over the past few decades, according to a study published online today in the journal Pediatrics.

Overall, parents were 16 percent less likely to correctly identify their overweight or obese children as overweight in 2005-10 compared to 1988-94, according to the study. More than three-quarters of parents in 2005-10 perceived their overweight children as "about the right weight."

For the study, the authors gathered data about children between the ages of 6 and 11 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They included 2,871 children who were interviewed between 1988-1994 and 3,202 from the 2005-2010 survey. Their parents (mostly mothers) were asked whether they believed their child to be "about the right weight," "overweight," or "obese."

Well and Good

In the 2005-10 survey, 78 percent of parents identified their overweight girls as "about the right weight," and 83 percent of parents did the same for their overweight boys. Back in the 1988-94 survey, only 61 percent of parents perceived their overweight girls to be "about the right weight," while 78 percent of parents did the same for their overweight boys. 

Roughly one-third of parents in the 2005-10 survey perceived their obese girls as about the right weight, and 37 percent of parents did the same for their obese boys. In 1988-94, only 21 percent of parents identified their obese girls as about the right weight, and 26 percent did the same for their obese boys.

Likewise, parents' perception of overweight children skewed downward over the years. In the 1988-94 survey, 21 percent and 39 percent of parents, respectively, correctly identified their overweight boys and girls as overweight. Those figures dropped to 16 percent and 22 percent, respectively, in the latter survey.

Here's a look at the weight statuses of all children from both surveys and how parents identified those children:

Parental Perceptions of Child Weight.png

The results led the authors to conclude that the definition of "overweight" for children could have led to some confusion among parents, or that some parents were "reluctant to admit that their child was overweight because of social pressure to maintain a lower weight, and the stigma attached to obesity."

Notably, this isn't the first study to find a disconnect between parental perceptions of a child's weight and the child's actual weight status. A poll released last February by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health found 73 percent of parents to believe their children are "about the right weight," while 14 percent considered their children "a little overweight." Only 1 percent of parents believed their child to be "very overweight," according to the poll.

According to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 32 percent of children are overweight and 17 percent are considered obese.

A September 2011 study conducted by the Sanford/WebMD Fit program found that 22 percent of parents feel uncomfortable discussing the consequences of being overweight with their children. Nineteen percent of parents believed that doctors should be the ones responsible for discussing healthy weight with children.

Though there have been signs of progress in combating the childhood-obesity epidemic in recent years, it still remains a major concern. Parents may need to force themselves to be more brutally honest when it comes to their own children if we're to continue moving forward in reducing obesity among youths.

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